Theatre Memories? Yessir! March 1993 to February 1996

In the absence of anything live, let’s go back in the past!

  1. On the Piste – Garrick Theatre, London, 27th March 1993

It had been 37 months since we’d last seen a live performance. Hard work, poverty and debt got in the way. But we broke our fast with this comedy by John Godber, who could always be relied on to get laughs out of a sea of difficulties. On the Piste had been the name of a hilarious BBC documentary following the fortunes of first time British skiers in the snowy resort of Söll in the Tyrol, and Godber used it for his own dramatized version. I don’t have many memories of it, but I know it was a good laugh. Paul Bown and Ivan Kaye led the cast.

  1. On the Ledge – Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, 24th April 1993

Alan Bleasdale’s dark comedy featured the late great Gary Olsen as a philosophical fireman trying to save the lives of a number of people who have gathered on a rooftop to throw themselves off. Sounds like a huge laugh, doesn’t it? I’m not sure it’s stood the test of time. However, I remember enjoying it, and the great cast also included Mark McGann, Dearbhla Molloy, Alan Igbon, Jimmy Mulville and The Young Ones’ Christopher Ryan.

  1. An Evening with Gary Lineker – Oxford Playhouse, 7th May 1993

Arthur Smith and Chris England’s comedy had enjoyed a successful run in London and we caught it on its post-West End tour. Another rather savage comedy, it concerned a relationship background set against watching the matches of the 1990 Football World Cup. The excellent cast included Eastenders’ Lofty, Tom Watt. I enjoyed it; although I remember thinking it lacked a certain something.

  1. Absurd Person Singular – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 26th March 1994

Skipping past a thoroughly enjoyable evening with Pam Ayres at the Civic Centre Aylesbury, our next play was also our first visit to a favourite theatre that would become our local for almost the next fifteen years. This revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1972 comedy, that observes three couples shredding each other over three successive Christmas Eves, boasted a stellar cast headed by Francis Matthews, with The Two of Us’s Janet Dibley, Waiting for God’s Daniel Hill, Georgina Hale and Liza Tarbuck. Excellent production and a very funny play. An interesting choice for our wedding anniversary!

  1. Shadowlands – Oxford Playhouse, 25th October 1994

Moving past the amateur production of As You Like it at that year’s Pendley Festival, our next play was William Nicholson’s moving, sensitive, but slow account of the life (and death) of the writer C S Lewis. Central to the play was a great performance by Anton Rodgers as the man himself. We took Mrs C’s boss’s boss to see it, a trendy young guy visiting from Boston, Massachusetts. His comment at the end of it? Gee, you Brits are so maudlin! Kind of sums it up.

  1. Salad Days – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 30th September 1995

Almost a year passed (which included seeing Pendley’s Much Ado About Nothing in August) until we caught this delightful touring production of Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade’s “enchanting musical of the 50s” which I sense was already deliberately dated when it was written. It was a terrific show though, directed by Ned Sherrin, featuring all those great old feelgood songs. Starring Kit and the Widow (better known now as Kit Hesketh-Harvey and Richard Sisson), it also featured musical theatre stalwarts like Gay Soper, Barry James and Edward Baker-Duly. Smashing stuff.

  1. Rambert Dance Company Autumn/Winter Tour – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 3rd and 5th October 1995

Two visits to see Rambert’s tour so that we could see both programmes. Rambert’s company at the time was crammed with fantastic dancers – Paul Liburd, Laurent Cavanna, Hope Muir, Steven Brett, Vincent Redmon, Glenn Wilkinson, Rafael Bonachela, Simon Cooper, Christopher Powney, and my favourite at the time, Marie-Laure Agrapart. The first programme started with Matthew Hawkins’ Dancing Attendance on the Cultural Chasm, then the recently late Robert Cohan’s Stabat Mater, Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort, and Ohad Naharin’s crowd-pleasing Axioma 7. The second programme was even more thrilling, with Mark Baldwin’s Banter Banter, followed by two of Christopher Bruce’s finest works, Swansong and Rooster. Unforgettable nights of dance.

  1. Riverdance – Apollo Hammersmith, London, 27th October 1995

As a Eurovision fan, we had to go and see the show that arose from the stunning interval act of the 1994 contest. The original music and dance from that first airing were already the stuff of legend, and it was successfully expanded into this full scale extravaganza, which starred the original dancer, the wonderful Jean Butler, and in the Michael Flatley role, Colin Dunne. Superb spectacular; maybe – just maybe – extending it to a full length show was a bit of a stretch. But it’s a show that has its own life force and still refuses to go away.

  1. A Little Night Music – Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, 30th December 1995

Passing over a return visit to see Blood Brothers at the Oxford Apollo (this time with Clodagh Rodgers and David Cassidy in the cast, both brilliant) our next show was the much anticipated revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Judi Dench as Desiree and Sian Phillips as Madame Armfeldt. A tremendous production by Sean Mathias, the cast also included Patricia Hodge, Joanna Riding and Issy van Randwyck. My Christmas present from Mrs C, we had seats right at the far end of row D; not the best view (but it was all we could afford) but it did give us a chance to spot the practical joke that Dame Judi played on Laurence Guittard, playing Egerman. At one point she turns her back to the audience to disrobe her top and (apparently) show him her fine chest. She wears an opaque body covering of course, but we could see that she had written on it in big letters HAPPY NEW YEAR so when he gasps with pleasure at her seeming nakedness he had to stifle an enormous guffaw. Very funny!

  1. Communicating Doors – Savoy Theatre, London, 3rd February 1996

Alan Ayckbourn’s beautifully inventive and hilarious time-travelling comedy had just transferred to the Savoy from the Garrick, in a terrific production directed by the author himself. An excellent cast was led by Angela Thorne, and I remember we both thought it was extremely funny and incredibly thought-provoking. Definitely one of his best!

Review – Communicating Doors, Menier Chocolate Factory, 7th June 2015

Communicating Doors 1996Hurrah for the theatre programme archive boxes in my study which quickly yielded up the programme for Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors, which Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw on Saturday 3rd February 1996 at the Savoy Theatre, with Miss Angela Thorne playing the part of Ruella. That’s almost twenty years ago. Maybe it isn’t a coincidence that twenty years have passed since the play first opened in the West End, as there are two periods of twenty years each that separate all three of the time scales in the play. But it’s not an epic staged over forty years, it all happens at the same time. Didn’t you know about that? Am I going too fast for you?

Communicating Doors 2015The scene is a grand suite at London’s Regal Hotel, in the year 2020. Poopay, a rather sassy visiting dominatrix has come to give aged and infirm client Reece a good going-over. Reece has other ideas for her though, getting her to witness his signature on a document where he confesses to have arranged the murder of both of his ex-wives. In an attempt to escape for her life, Poopay dashes through a communicating door in the hotel room, only to find that, rather than taking her to another room, it takes her back to the same room, only twenty years earlier. Thus she discovers Reece’s second wife Ruella on the eve of her murder (by his somewhat violent and wicked business partner Julian, as it happens). Once Poopay has cottoned on to what’s happening, it’s up to her to convince Ruella of the danger she is in. Fortunately, Ruella is a spirited sort who enjoys a challenge. Ruella discovers she too can go back another twenty years via the communicating door, to discover Reece and Jessica (Wife #1) on their honeymoon night. Can the three women gang up together to use time to their advantage, defeat evil and create some happy-ever-afters where the course of all three of their lives turns out beautifully? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

Imogen StubbsAyckbourn’s play is a modern classic of the “playing with time” genre. It was J B Priestley who really explored this style all hammer and tongs in the 1930s and 40s. Among his time-plays are Dangerous Corner, I Have Been Here Before and of course An Inspector Calls, rather moody, melodramatic plays, all revolving around time-tricks that are impossible in real life, with Priestley often using the device to expose hypocrisy and wickedness. Whilst the threat of violence and death is not inconsiderable in Communicating Doors, cocking a respectful hat to Psycho in one scene, Ayckbourn’s version of the time-play is nevertheless a much jollier affair, played strictly for laughs, and you don’t have to gen up on any Einsteinian time theories in advance. But I’m sure Priestley would have loved it all the same.

Rachel TuckerFor this production, the wonderfully flexible Menier space has been set up as a traditional proscenium arch, creating a very wide stage perfect for the grandeur of a five star hotel suite. Whilst the main living room area of the suite has a timeless appearance, it is perhaps stretching credulity that the ensuite appearance and tiling would be the same in 1980 as it is in 2020. But then I can’t believe I’m actually looking for consistency in bathroom fittings over a period of forty years when the play itself is a complete flight of nonsense from start to finish.

Lucy Briggs-OwenIt’s often been said that Ayckbourn writes great roles for women and here is a triumivirate (or should that be triumfeminate) to rank with the best. Imogen Stubbs is brilliant as Ruella, mixing hearty, brave, and enthusiastic characteristics with demure and unassuming behaviour. Mind you, she’s not above fluttering her womanly wiles at the hapless security man to get her way, manipulating in a thoroughly nice and decent manner, of course. Rachel Tucker, too, gives a delightful performance as Poopay, the dominatrix who’d probably be more comfortable tucked up with a late night cocoa, occasionally subtly revealing a hidden insight into what you imagine might be her rather sad and lonely world. As she faces her fears, running the gauntlet of Reece’s and Julian’s evil scheme, she and Ruella show great sisterly solidarity with each other, like a kind of time-warp self-help group. And then you have the wonderfully near-vacuous Jessica, played by Lucy Briggs-Owen, sweetly dippy on her wedding night, but blossoming in sophistication in later years – with a wonderfully underplayed moment where you realise what her ultimate fate will be. All three of them join forces in one amazing slapstick scene on the balcony – physical comedy at its funniest.

David BamberThe “supporting” male cast are all very good too. There’s a splendidly low-life performance by David Bamber as the irredeemably horrible Julian, dripping with snide and malevolence, ready to snap your neck as soon as look at you. Robert Portal convinces us with both the nasty and kindly sides of Reece – being nasty certainly does nothing for Reece’s health, that’s for sure (nice work from the make-up department). And there’s some wonderful comic timing from Matthew Cottle as security man Harold, both bumptious in youth and beaten by age, and who also gets his own share of happy-ever-after.

Matthew CottleWe’re pretty sure all the loose ends tie up together, and, in the strange otherworld logic of the play, it kind of all makes sense. Incidentally, the original production had the three elements of the play set in 1974, 1994 and 2014. In our more modern society, Lindsay Posner has chosen to set the “future” scenes only a handful of years away, rather than a complete generation. A result of that is that whereas the original production had the “Ruella Years” for the contemporary setting, this production has “today” hovering somewhere between the two. So it looks like the director can play with time just as much as the author. Whatever, this is a timely opportunity to catch this great Ayckbourn play with a cast that do it terrific justice.

Robert PortalP.S. Great idea at the Menier now to have the bench seats in different colour fabric every two seats. That makes it so much easier to see where you should (and should not) be sitting, and may well discourage some people from spilling over into next door’s patch. Nice work!